In an essay on rhizomatic education, Dave Cormier proposes the following:
“In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process”.
He continues by stating: “Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum”.
Not only does the community become the curriculum, but also displaces the need for external validation, according to Cormier.
There are many aspects in the notion of rhizomatic learning that resonates with me.
There are however two aspects that worry me.
The first aspect that worries me is the notion of the ‘community’ as something that is not affected by power-relations embedded in gender, race, geo-political, socio-economic and cultural histories and realities.
We forget that communities are convened/established based on certain shared epistemologies and ontologies. Communities do not only include, but per se also exclude. The criteria on which membership of communities are based are embedded in power-relations and as the massacres in Rwanda, Herzegovina and other places show – these criteria can change overnight. You may be part of a community when you go to sleep, and wake up to find that you are excluded based on religion, gender, HIV/AIDS status, culture, language, employment status or a range of other, often arbitrarily chosen criteria.
Biesta (2004) in a wonderful article “The community of those who have nothing in common: Education and the language of responsibility” (Interchange 53/3:307-324) quotes Bauman (1995) who warns that all communities create ‘strangers’ – those who do not fit the epistemological or ontological maps of those on the ‘inside’. Communities either force strangers to become assimilated into the meta-narratives on which these communities are based; or excommunicate these who do not ‘fit’. Bauman (in Biesta 2004) calls the assimilation of the ‘other’ “anthropophagic” which literally means “man(sic)-eating” – transforming those who are assimilated into undistinguishable (and accepted) members of the community.
When strangers or those who do not ‘fit’ into or accept the founding meta-narratives of a community are excommunicated, they are banished and vomited out – which Bauman calls an “anthropoemic” approach.
Peaceful coexistence between communities is often (mostly?) based on a careful balance of interests and power/benefit relations.
So while Cormier and others (seem to) celebrate the end of the “sage on the stage” or experts; I suspect that the community and/or network has now taken over the role of the ‘one’ person who decides what to include and exclude. Though knowledge and knowledge construction does look different in a networked age and resemble rhizomes, these networks and rhizomes may not be so neutral as we would like to assume (see Castells 2009 “Communication Power”).
The second aspect that I haven’t resolved yet is how does rhizomatic learning look in the foundational cornerstones of subjects like accounting, chemistry, mathematics, and physics (to mention but a few)?
I share the belief that all knowledge is socially constructed and flows from and perpetuates accepted epistemologies and ontologies embedded in the dominant discourses of the day. So I do not contest that. But how does one engage students in the basic building blocks in subjects like programming, accounting and chemistry. What level of understanding and capability is necessary before I can participate and contribute to rhizomatic learning – or do I miss something? For example, I can join a discussion or Wiki on microbiology or astrophysics – but even though I will be part of the network, the rhizomatic flows in the network will be totally wasted on me.
I would love to develop curricula that speak to and from the contexts of students, and appropriate to a specific professional context. I would like to scaffold and design a flow of information between these different contexts taking into consideration power-relations, context and threshold concepts. So while a lot of learning can and does take place outside carefully designed learning experiences, my question relates to the implications of rhizomatic learning when designing a mooc or a more structured (and assessed) curriculum.
As educator I embrace three things:
- Not all the learning I plan for, takes place
- Some of the learning I plan for, happens (often against all odds )
- And then there is a lot of learning that happens that I do not (and cannot and should not) plan for
So while I embrace learning as essentially rhizomatic, I suspect that this does not exclude the fact that the different nodes and networks are embedded in sometimes frivolous and dynamic criteria and canons of ‘knowledge’, often with disastrous results. Or do I miss something?